I can't remember why, but I was reading an article on WebMD when I saw a sidebar linking to a sports injury quiz. Since a large part of what I do every day is working to get to the bottom of running injuries, I decided to check it out. Though most of the questions were about traumatic injuries to the upper body, which are much more common in contact sports, there were a few on running injuries. I'm pretty used to seeing misconceptions all over the place when it comes to the causes and optimal treatments for running injuries, but one slide bothered me because a) it was so aggressively incorrect and b) WebMD content is supposed to be vetted and approved by a medical doctor, which lends it an air of authority.
I've reproduced the offending slide below:
The available answers, by the way, were "torn ligaments," "inflammation," "tiny fractures," and "all of the above," none of which are wholly satisfactory.
As readers who have perused my Injury Series articles will know, "shin splints" is a vague term that usually refers to medial tibial stress syndrome, which is a well-defined problem that occurs on the medial edge of the tibia (your shinbone). Unfortunately, the term "shin splints" has morphed into a catch-all term for any exercise-related pain in the shin. WebMD's picture of an athlete icing the lateral side of the upper shin certainly doesn't help. The equation of "shin splints" to "shin pain of any sort" causes mundane things like shin muscle fatigue and more serious things like anterior compartment syndrome to be conflated with medial tibial stress syndrome under the improperly-used umbrella term of "shin splints."
Worse, the answer—"inflammation of muscles, tendons, bone, and other tissue surrounding the shin bone"—is demonstrably incorrect. Though the main purpose of this post is to address the larger issue of outdated or simply incorrect information about running injuries that's all over the place on the internet, I should be thorough and formulate a more proper answer to the question of what "shin splints"—understood to be medial tibial stress syndrome—are caused by.